Morality and Ethics of Dropping the Atomic Bombs

 In the history of war, no event has had quite as much controversy as the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II. A world-changing event, they ushered in not only the atomic age, but the nuclear arms race and the Cold War. The bombs were incredibly powerful. In 1952, Hubert Alyea said that ?the atom bomb is an entirely new, revolutionary weapon, 10,000,000 times more powerful than modern high explosives.’ (Alyea 349). The bombs were nothing like the world had ever seen before. What can be viewed as a humanitarian tragedy can be viewed in a different lens that doesn’t necessarily justify it but can show why it was done and what could have happened if the war had simply continued. The question of ethics is increasingly prominent with this event, especially because of the number of casualties (many of these being civilians).


The bombs were very deadly. The first bomb on Hiroshima ?killed 66,000 men, women, and children, and injured an additional 69,000. A full 67 percent of Hiroshima’s buildings, transportation systems, and urban structures were destroyed.’ (Pavlik). Additionally, the second bomb on Nagasaki ?killed 39,000 civilians and injured another 25,000; 40 percent of the city was destroyed or unrepairable.’ (Pavlik). Japan would surrender shortly after the second bomb was dropped. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were decimated, lives were changed, and lasting impacts are still being felt today. However, with the Soviet Union possibly going to join the Pacific Front, the world’s deadliest war could’ve been far deadlier than anyone could’ve even imagined. War (and everything) is a matter of endless what ifs. What could’ve happened without the bombs being dropped will never be known. But, from a morality standpoint, the dropping of the atomic bombs is moral based on the theory of just war: proportionality and discrimination. Without it being dropped, the amount of death and destruction could’ve been astounding.


  • According to William Mattison, for something to be virtuous, it must
  • Have good intention,
  • Have a bad effect that isn’t the mean of the good effect
  • Proportionality, i.e. the good that is gained outweighing the evil effect. (Mattison 172).


The weighing of good and bad is crucial in an argument about the bombs. On one hand it ended World War II and saved hundreds of thousands of future lives, but on another it tragically killed 100,000 and left everlasting effects on the people and their communities. (Mattison 173).


Even on the day of the bombing, the descriptions of what the Japanese civilians went through is nothing short of horror. A death in this way was something that hasn’t been seen before to man. No one quite knew what the bombs would do to the people, with the radiation either killing or mutating many of those people who survived the initial blasts from the bombs. However, war is marked by moments like these; tragedies that had an overarching good intention for the long run at the expense of large-scale devastation in the short run. With no correct right or wrong answer, this leads to the ethical debate about the use and continued creation of these superweapons. This ideology is increasingly prevalent today, as many nations have nuclear bombs at their disposal to use at a moments notice. Learning from the reasons and aftermath of the dropping of Little Boy and Fat Man is crucial towards world peace and the avoidance of nuclear war.


Atomic bombs were products of the modern age, and unlike anything ever seen to man. (Alyea). The use of them was out of necessity, however the ethical nature of them are often questioned. Though the amount of death because of the bomb was staggering, it is relatively on par with their civilian deaths during the rest of the war, pointing to the fact that is likely could’ve been much worse. With an outlook on just war: proportionality, one can argue that although the amount of deaths (although brought about in such a short period of time) was relatively on par with that of the rest of the war for Japan. The bombs killed 103,000 (estimated) people initially in Japan (Pavlik, 1), but civilian deaths in Japan in World War II likely went into the 800,000’s, (Research Starters: Worldwide Deaths in World War II) pointing to the chance that many more would have died had the bombs not been dropped. The sheer proportionality of it makes this a moral event. Every country had lost lives, and every country had to make sacrifices for the betterment of man. World War II was the deadliest war in world history, and avoided death wasn’t an option.


The idea of just war: proportionality and discrimination points to the idea of combatants and noncombatants. Everyone in Japan was considered a combatant to the United States, which in a way justifies their actions as their morality pointed that this was the correct move to end the war and avoid many more deaths. Additionally, according to Mattison, the doctrine of double effect can be applied to such an event like this. In every war, noncombatants are killed. So, while noncombatant immunity is a right that should be granted to all of those in war, noncombatant deaths are essentially unavoidable. If ?not killing noncombatants’ was a requirement for just war, then no war in the history of man has been just. (Mattison 171). The United States likely tried to get a peaceful solution but had to resort to dropping the bombs to effectively end the war. Even after dropping the first bomb, they tried to get Japan to surrender so they wouldn’t have to drop another bomb.


The Japanese were given many opportunities to surrender but chose not to do so. They were savage, cruel, and not open to dialogue. They were fighting unjustly. And on top of this, if the United States did not drop the bombs, the secretary of war Henry Stimson calculated that the war would carry on until the latter part of 1946, the earliest. (Bruder)


An additional 200,000-500,000 American deaths could have resulted from a continued war effort in the Pacific Front. Just war is backed by the idea of looking for peaceful resolution before conflict. The United States tried to find peace, but Japan held out, and this left them no choice.


United States intervention with Japan was not unwarranted. The attack on Pearl Harbor was sudden and deadly. Had the United States carrier ships been at port that day, the war would’ve been very hard for them to win. According to just war; proportionality, the dropping of the atom bomb was moral based on the fact that the United States was unexpectedly provoked, bringing them into a war that they may not have joined had the events on December 7, 1941 not happened.


Mattison described the idea of making sure conflicts are even and events and casualties are close to equal. This idea of proportionality justifies the bombing, not just to get back at Japan for Pearl Harbor, but for their actions in the rest of the war. The war had been over in the European theater, and Truman likely needed a quick way to end the deadliest war of all time. A land invasion by the United States on Japan would have not only lead to hundreds of thousands of more casualties, but it would have extended the war by likely years and could have brought the Soviet Union back into the war, which would have escalated tensions to Cold War levels for the US and Soviets. Such an invasion would have had an estimated 760,000 Americans, resulting in likely 250,000 casualties. (Mattison 164)


The event is cemented in the minds of an era. It was a defining moment in the 20th century. While it can be argued that it was moral, it is not without conflicting viewpoints. The common idea that killing non-combatants is wrong would in itself be enough for someone who subscribes to the Pacifism mindset to say that dropping the bombs was immoral. However much the doctrine of the sanctity of noncombatant life was limited in practice, there existed a long tradition in European ethics that held that the killing of noncombatants was morally offensive and wrong. (Pavlik).


This mindset, however, would argue that every war in the history of man has been immoral. Unfortunately, killing civilians and non-combatants is merely a mainstay in war and is very hard to avoid. Another counter-viewpoint could be that the bombs were very unpredictable, especially considering the United States didn’t really know quite what was going to happen. The severity of these bombs was crucial because had the Japanese not surrendered after the dropping of the bombs, the United States would have been out of options after they used their second (and final) bomb. A relatively unknown weapon, the United States was essentially taking a huge gamble, a gamble that luckily ended with the surrender of Japan.


All that being said, the importance of the effects of these bombs must not be understated. The makeup of the bomb might not be the most moral thing, but the act of dropping is (given the parameters and events of the war) was moral. Banning the use of these weapons would thus be viewed as unethical, especially considering it would affect many of the world superpowers. The absence of the US dropping these bombs would cause a butterfly effect that would likely have drastic changes on the modern world as we know it. The idea of combatants and non-combatants could be one of the major selling points to prove this was an un-just action, but the parameters in which the United States’ actions were provoked can essentially prove that wrong. In the rest of the war, the United States observed non-combatant immunity for the most part.


It was essentially the possible threat of further attacks that warranted the United States’ actions. (Mattison 177-178). Japan was highly militarized at the time, so essentially no one was considered a non-combatant. Mattison’s definition of the just war theory does not condone the effects of the bombs and the destructive nature of them, but with the ideas of proportionality and discrimination, the act itself can be seen as moral. It ended a multi-year world conflict that led to millions of deaths at the expense of 100,000. While no death is good, the idea of lessening the blow can therefore justify it.


The awesome power of the atomic bomb was something that had never been seen to man. As a civilization, we much learn from this event, and see why it happened, but also see how to avoid anything like this from happening again. War never changes, and it will always evolve and grow in intensity. But, weapons of mass destruction should take the same route that mustard gas did after World War I following heavy German use; it should not be used again. Japan should be the framework for this mindset. While it was essentially a necessity to end the war and save further casualties, another weapon of mass destruction dropped could spark a world-wide nuclear war that could very well end life as we know it.


The Just War theory does allow for conflict after peaceful intervention. In the case of the atom bomb, the United States were unexpectedly attacked by Japan in 1941 at Pearl Harbor (Pavlik) and repeatedly tried to get Japan to surrender before resorting to dropping the bombs. While it may not be an ethical course of action, it was moral based on the parameters and reasons behind it. In 1952 Alyea said ?The atom bomb is deadly. We choose not between war and peace, but between peace and annihilation.’ (Alyea 351). The knowledge of these bombs must be passed down from generation to generation to ensure that something like this does not have to happen again. The world was forever changed when the bombs were dropped those fateful days in 1945, driving in a new era of war and conflict.

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